What is it with the Spanish and potato crisps? The UK may put away as many crisps as the rest of Europe combined, but the Spanish have turned them into a trademark of their new-wave cuisine.
I once spent a day in El Taller, the Barcelona workshop and kitchen used by Ferran Adria to devise new dishes for his legendary El Bulli restaurant. As I watched, the sparkly-eyed Adria created an "ice ravioli" (sheets of frozen apple juice filled with corn caramel) and savoury churros (dipped into parmesan cream instead of chocolate). For his next trick, he opened a pack of potato crisps and scooped them through a fluffy foam of salt and vinegar. I didn't have the heart to tell him that salt and vinegar crisps had already been invented.
Six years later, I walk into Inopia, the new casual Barcelona tapas bar opened by Ferran's pastry chef brother, Albert, and find the menu lists sardine sandwiches, patatas bravas, a lovely salad of ventresca tuna layered with tomato and red onion... and three different variations on crisps, including one flavoured with roast chicken. How the hell did he do that, I think to myself. Then the barman opens a packet of Lay's roast chicken-flavoured crisps, and empties them into a bowl. Oh.
And now, here I am at Commerc 24, Carles Abellan's industrial chic new restaurant in the regenerated El Born district of Barcelona, eating potato crisps. Only, this time, they are house-made, and served with an olive foam with its attendant briney characteristics. Pupil copying master, perhaps, as Abellan cooked with Adria for some nine years, although he has since been busy developing his own style as well, evolving into one of Barcelona's new leading kitchen lights.
Housed in an old salting house, the dining room itself is a moody, angular space in gun-metal grey. The kitchen, clearly visible behind a plate glass window, is as brightly lit as a stage, clearly drawing a line between audience and performers. The place to sit is at the high table next to the kitchen or at the nearby bar, but these are booked weeks ahead. An adjoining room feels a bit B-list, dimly lit by a chandelier of cymbals.
An à la carte menu lists all sorts of silly-bugger food like "cold-hot dashi and wasabi soup", "edible crab rice" and "raff tomato with dried tuna eggs", so I take refuge in the cheaper of the two ever-changing set menus of £33 and £47. Almost immediately, dishes start washing up on the table in steady waves.
After the crisps come three little oval sardine tins, complete with false ring pulls, in playful reference to the traditional tapas bars' cans of anchovies and tuna. In the first are two huge, meaty green olives threaded with a sumptuously plump anchovy; in the second are crunchy macadamia nuts that appear to have been bronzed Goldfinger-style; while the third is an odd mix of cauliflower florets and raspberries that comes out of left field and should possibly have stayed there. It's the only real dud of the night.
Next is a subtle, confident dish of cockles with lamb's lettuce and watercress vinaigrette, and a sensational little tartare of sparkling tuna surrounded by a moat of egg yolk. More forceful flavours hit exactly the right notes in glass cups of whippy, creamy cod brandade with artichokes; a dramatic little play on arroz negre with lively-tasting black rice and cuttlefish; and slivers of hake smartly spiced up with miso mustard.
Next comes Abellan's signature "Kinder egg", an immaculately trimmed egg shell served in a ceramic egg carton, filled with layers of soft egg, truffle and potato foam that is rich and mouth-filling, yet light and uplifting.
Trying to match so many individual tastes to different wines would drive anyone crazy, so I choose the one-size-fits-all appeal of an elegant, toasty Hacienda Monasterio Ribera del Duero (£36).
Caught up in the sideshow fun, it comes as a surprise that a perfectly nice last "main course" of finely sliced grilled beef with wild mushrooms comes with no surprise at all.
Desserts return to the gastrocircus, leading off with a little glass of a very berry milk shake, to sip through a party straw. Then comes perfectly formed, mastic-like mounds of olive oil chocolate ganache - one of white chocolate and strawberry, and another of dark chocolate and Maldon salt. Finally, the famous crema Catalan, or crème caramel is deconstructed into a sweet little foam.
Using traditional Catalan cooking as a base adds resonance as well as provenance, and the restaurant itself is run with a professional air. I like the way the Spanish look at gastronomy in this anti-bourgeois way, making comfort food slightly uncomfortable. Like Adria, Abellan likes to play with our heads, and play with his food. There is wit and surprise, and only the occasional silly or gratuitous result.
For a while there, the new Spanish cuisine was in danger of being a fascinating intellectual exercise, and little more. Now, at least we get to have a great night out at the same time - and potato crisps, too.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Commerc 24, Carrer Commerc 24, Barcelona tel: 00 34 93 319 21 02 Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday. Set menus £33 and £47 per person, not including wine
Second helpings: More new-wave Barcelona dining
Evo Hesperia Tower Hotel, Gran Via 144, Barcelona, tel: 00 34 93 413 50 00 On top of the Richard Rogers-designed, 27-storey Hesperia Tower, the new eatery of Catalonian chef Santa Santamaria is the talk of the town, along with his beet juice ice cream with beetroot.
Moo Hotel Omm, Carrer Rossello 265, Barcelona, tel: 00 34 93 445 40 00
The three Roca brothers already have two Michelin stars at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. Now they have another one at Omm, thanks to dishes such as foie gras soup with lychees and roses (yes, really).
Lasarte Hotel Condes, Mallorca 259, Barcelona, tel: 00 34 93 445 32 42
Having made his name in the Basque country, three-starred Martin Berasategui brings breakthrough dishes such as stuffed pigs' trotters with ceps crust and idiazabal cheese to this elegant dining room.
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